PARROT'S SONG by Brynne Rebele-Henry
You walked in, my hands shook, you called me grotesque, a joke, you said my mother was an ape and my father was a zookeeper. My beard is longer than yours, jutting over my protruding chin, but even you have to say that my hands are small and perfect. Your name is Theodore, you ran a circus. I am a freak, my body rebelled against me, trapping me in this thick cocoon. You say you love me, you want to marry me, you love me, you say I am beautiful, my insides, you say, are like pearls, my body the rough shell. You loved me, I believed you. Even now, I still believe you. I need to believe you, or else I will lose the pearls and become just an empty shell. I dance for you, my little feet singing. I shroud our house with darkness, you can only hear my voice and little feet, pearls in a shell rattling through. You were so beautiful, your pearls on the outside. Inside was your darkness, I can feel it still, your scent lingering on me, in me, it is constricting me tighter than any corset.
A girl walking through cities, towns, brothels, and houses, it was all a blur. Choruses of faces and bodies, the men calling, twisted, watching. I tried to cut my hair and shave with your old razors, your scent in my teeth and wrists, dried tobacco mingling with your body on my fingers. You walked in, threw them from my hand, they chimed as they hit the floor, a musical number for the little act you called my life. I fell down. You said you loved me as you hit me, made me dance, on display, tightened my corset, bruising, cutting my ribs. You turned the soft skin hard and rubbed in calluses like a magic trick.
“Nobody else,” you said, could love me. “Only I,” you said, “could love you because you are so ugly.” “I am a holy man,” you said, “blessed in the ways of god in loving you, no other man could marry you, live with you, make you.” And again the need to be loved would fill up my veins and belly and the corset would be loosened and you would bind me with stays. And I would watch the arsenic-stained floor as I kneeled and the rats you killed would swing inside me, tangling through my beard and gums. My little feet would bleed, you dragged me town to town, city to city, house to house, the different beds, rooms blurring. I forgot who I was or who I am, where I am, but I know who you are. I am the parrot in the cage you make speak, and when you’re done you drape the cloth and I sleep and wait for you to lift my deliria again.
I memorized your body, more familiar than my own, the lightness, the hardness and bruises through your eyes, seeping from your mouth. I adopt your beauty and become you, going in so deep, I am always inside you. The “ugliest woman in the world” collecting dust in the corner with her fliers, old papers and past life, the men whose wives compare features and pity my existence, preening for the men who look at them and then at me, eyes large, a new appreciation forming. Their wives may look like hippos and act like cats but at least they aren’t half ape. Any new irregularity in my appearance you adopted like our son you didn’t want.
I know you don’t love me, you love the money. But I make the money through me, so isn’t the money me as well? When I think you love me, I breathe, dancing on small feet. I think of my pearls and your pearls, calculating in my head the length for a necklace. You hit me, want me to be uglier, I am inside you and can feel no pain, just your hands and I feel so, so sad for you. You sleep with gold coins under your pillow, when you are through with me, back facing my body, you finger them, crooning softly, like you were singing a lullaby to your metal children.
I feel the cold surface brushing my fingers, you, my magpie, attracted to things that shine, with me, a dull dirty one. Inside, you are dirty so dirty. My fingers come away covered in residue from your insides. I become uglier to please you, cut my lips and face, break my teeth. My body is like the parrot in the cage, singing for you. You develop my calluses and I want to be you.
Note: Julia Pastrana was a woman who had several medical conditions, one of which covered her body in hair. Her mother sold her to a freak show manager, whom Julia later married. He exploited her in touring circus shows until she died in 1860 while giving birth to his child, who had the same condition. After having her and her child’s bodies embalmed, Theodore Lent (the manager husband) continued touring with their corpses on display. Julia was given a burial in 2013.
Brynne Rebele-Henry is a visual artist and writer. Her chapbook, Wind is wind and rain is rain, was published by Horseless Press in 2006. Her poetry is forthcoming in The Volta, and her criticism has appeared in Verse magazine.